Barred for Life

The process for restoring the civil rights of felons in Florida works perfectly -- if not restoring their rights is the goal

"When I started this whole thing, they said it would take five to nine months. Then it was a year, then a year to eighteen months. Then over two years."

After layoffs during the summer of 2001, only one person was working on all those files, an employee who was routinely pulled off to work warrants, Robin says. "So no applications were being processed at all. They sat and sat and sat. After a year, we were number 36, I think. That's when he sent me that long application to shut me up."

That twelve-page questionnaire was as inane as it was lengthy. Among the inquiries were the addresses, phone numbers, and occupations of siblings; age moved from parents' home; information on parents, including, if deceased, by what cause; children "born out of wedlock"; a complete marital history; and financial disclosures that exceeded those required for most mortgage loans.

Only supplicants need apply for rights from Gov. Jeb Bush
Wyatt Olson
Only supplicants need apply for rights from Gov. Jeb Bush
Florida Parole Commissioner Jimmie Henry concedes that the backlog of restoration applications will likely remain
Wyatt Olson
Florida Parole Commissioner Jimmie Henry concedes that the backlog of restoration applications will likely remain

"I'm sorry, but if your parents die, what relevancy does that have to clemency?" Robin marvels.

"I just wanted to be legal," Chris explains. "I'd put everything behind me, served my sentence, penitence, my debt to society -- whatever you want to call it. Here I am busting my butt trying to do the right thing, and they're telling me I can't."

After June 2001 the Clemency Office began using a shortened form and sent it to Chris. "We filled that out, and it sat about three months," Robin says. She continued to "pester" Henry, who finally interviewed Chris for an hour in the fall of 2001, asking about the nature of the crime, the conviction, the time on probation. Robin says Henry wanted records on all 42 co-conspirators listed along with Chris on the indictment -- if they were alive, if they were in jail, where they lived. "It was ridiculous," she groans.

She holds a dog-eared sheet of paper with scores of names and numbers scribbled upon it. "This system leads you from one person to another to another to another and another," she explains. "I'd get names of attorneys, people in the parole commission, senators' aides, names from articles in the newspaper."

Chris chimes in: "She was told by so many people during this process: 'Do not tell anybody where you got this information from. Don't let anyone know that I'm the person who told you to call this person.'" Attorneys told them that it generally cost more than $25,000 in fees for legal representation in such cases, which usually take two years. "That's just to get to the point where someone's going to make a decision where you're granted or denied," Chris says.

His application was initially denied, which meant that it had to go through a hearing before the Executive Clemency Board, whose members are the governor and his cabinet. Chris was scheduled for the June 2002 hearing, but Robin learned through her steady telephone contact with cabinet aides that he would have an "unfavorable" recommendation before the board. Robin discovered that a flag had gone up on Chris's file when no documentation was found indicating he had completed his court-ordered drug counseling. Chris's probation officer wrote a letter appealing to common sense, pointing out that if he hadn't completed the counseling, he wouldn't be off probation.

This one last snag, however, apparently weighed against Chris. When the DiFrancos flew to Tallahassee, rented a car, and drove to the morning hearing of the clemency board, Chris was still listed as "unfavorable" for restoration. "Once you're 'unfavorable,' it's up to you to prove yourself 'favorable,'" Robin says. Chris was 82nd in line; by the time his name was called and he was given the opportunity to speak for five minutes, he'd thrown away his prepared defense. He chose instead the path of successful applicants he'd witnessed before him: remorseful confession and a heartfelt plea for mercy. Jeb Bush granted him restoration of his civil rights.


Chris DiFranco's case is both emblematic and atypical. More than 600,000 of Florida's off-paper felons are now disenfranchised, meaning that they can't vote and in most cases cannot obtain professional licenses. DiFranco shared with all those felons the burdensome undertaking this state now requires for restoration of civil rights. But at the same time, he is among a tiny minority who have had the resources, patience, and good luck to clear all those hurdles.

"Most people wouldn't have kept as much documentation as we did," Robin DiFranco says. "But I had everything, all the indictment files, six file boxes." The DiFrancos are white and middle-class; Robin wonders how many "lower-income minorities" would have all that documentation, time, and money to obtain certified copies and to call and travel to Tallahassee. How many could talk the "right way" to bureaucrats and aides, schmoozing with the right people for the best way to proceed?

The answer is, not many. The number of restorations has fallen dramatically since the late 1980s, when a get-tough-on-crime attitude led to new rules that made the process more difficult. During 1986, 15,000 felons had rights restored; in 2000, that number was down to 927.

That decline has had a profound effect on certain Floridians. A disproportionately higher number of black felons remains disenfranchised compared with nonblack felons, according to an analysis conducted by Christopher Uggen, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota who studies the effects of felony disenfranchisement. As of the end of 2000, Florida's 167,000 off-paper, disenfranchised black felons represented 10.5 percent of the state's total black voting-age population. That percentage was 5.6 for nonblacks.

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